Friday, March 11, 2011

Veena Malik's Interview

Libyan forces push rebels back

Gates urges NATO not to leave Afghanistan 'prematurely'

In a sternly worded address to the 48 countries contributing troops to the Afghanistan War, Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned against wavering on promises to see the fight through to 2014.“Frankly, there is too much talk about leaving and not enough talk about getting the job done right,” Gates said at NATO headquarters Friday, specifically calling out “capitals on this continent.”

“Too much discussion of exit and not enough discussion about continuing the fight. Too much concern about when and how many troops might redeploy, and not enough about what needs to be done before they leave.”After visiting some of Afghanistan’s most contested areas this week, Gates endorsed President Barack Obama’s goal of pulling out some U.S. forces beginning this July.
Commanders at Bagram Air Field in the east and in Kandahar and Helmand provinces in the south reported their winter gains — the most significant of the war — will be tested as mid-level Taliban fighters come streaming back from Pakistan with the start of the spring fighting season.

Gates said the July drawdown would be limited and not likely occurring in the south or southwest, which are still seeing heavier fighting.
With the U.S. investing 100,000 troops, $120 billion per year, and $12.8 billion to build the Afghan security forces, Gates said the coalition needs to “keep our focus.”

“We will not sacrifice the significant gains made to date, or the lives lost, for a political gesture,” he said. “In return, we expect the same from your nations.”
Without the coalition’s unified support, he said, “the progress we now see could be threatened.”
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Gates was not speaking to any government in particular. Rather, he was addressing wider political debates lingering over the still unpopular war.Gen. David Petraeus and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Adm. James Stavridis also addressed Friday’s closed session, which included Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak.
There are roughly 42,000 non-U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan, according to NATO. Their numbers range from Britain’s 9,500 to Iceland’s two.

On Tuesday, U.S. commanders in Sangin and Arghandab, Afghanistan, told Gates the announcement in November that NATO forces would remain in Afghanistan through 2014 helped convince locals to switch allegiances from the Taliban to the coalition and Afghan government, and helped boost recruiting for Afghan security forces.

But under political pressure to get out of the war, following the U.S. lead, British leaders last year said they may begin to pull some forces out in 2011, and in January, Germany’s parliament voted to start withdrawing some of its 4,900 troops this year. Poland also might start withdrawing forces this year.
NATO and International Security Assistance Force ministers endorsed a plan to transfer security to Afghan forces in some parts of the country beginning this year. President Hamid Karzai is expected to announce the details timed to the Afghan new year later this month. Each area could take 12 to 18 months to complete the transition, a NATO release said.
On Friday, Gates asked for money for the Afghan forces — about $1.4 billion per year — on top of the $12.8 billion Obama seeks for fiscal 2012 for the security forces.
“We can’t lose our momentum, or give in to calls to withdraw before the job is finished,” said Gates.

As protests roil neighbors, Saudis quash rallies

A massive show of force by Saudi Arabia's government snuffed out a Facebook-based effort to stage unprecedented pro-democracy protests in the capital on Friday, but political unrest and sectarian tensions roiled neighboring Yemen and Bahrain.

Yemen's largest demonstrations in a month were met by police gunfire that left at least six protesters injured and seemed certain to fuel more anger against the deeply unpopular U.S.-allied president.

In Bahrain, a conflict deepened between the island kingdom's Shiite majority and its Sunni Muslim royal family, whose security forces and pro-government mobs attacked demonstrators with tear gas, rocks and swords. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited the tiny country, the home of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, to reassure its rulers of unwavering U.S. support, officials said.

With uprisings threatening allies on its eastern and southern flanks, the Sunni Saudi monarchy appeared to be taking no chances in its effort to keep the popular push for democracy in the Arab world from spreading to the world's largest crude oil exporter.

In the heavily Shiite eastern Saudi province, hundreds of protesters marched in at least four different locations, calling for the release of political prisoners and demanding reform.

In the city of Qatif, not far from Bahrain, armored personnel carriers and dozens of officers in riot gear surrounded several hundred demonstrators shouting calls for reforms and equality between the sects. Police opened fire in the city to disperse a protest late Thursday in an incident that left three protesters and one officer wounded, but there was no repeat of that violence.

In a video posted on social networking websites, a helicopter hovered over a few hundreds male protesters in a small street in the town of al-Ahsa in the Eastern Province. Protesters chanted: "The people want justice and equality." It was not possible to independently confirm the footage.

Yemen's president of 32 years appeared to be one of the Arab leaders most threatened by the regional unrest inspired by pro-democracy revolts in Egypt and Tunisia.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in Yemen's four largest provinces, ripping down and burning President Ali Abdullah Saleh's portraits in Sheikh Othman, the most populated district in the southern port city of Aden, witnesses said.

Security forces hurled tear gas into crowds close to a stadium and then opened fire, using machine guns mounted on vehicles, said eyewitness Sind Abdullah, 25.

In the conservative capital, Sanaa, thousands of women participated in demonstrations - a startling move in a deeply tribal society where women are expected to stay out of sight.

Demonstrators demanded jobs and greater political freedom and decried Saleh's proposal Thursday that the government create a new constitution guaranteeing the independence of parliament and the judiciary, calling it too little and too late.

The autocratic leader is also an ally in the Obama adminstration's push to eliminate the local branch of al-Qaida, which has attempted to attack the United States. He has also worked closely with the Saudis to quash his own Shiite uprising in the north.

In the Saudi capital, security forces who took up positions on corners and intersections as at least one helicopter buzzed overhead. Police blocked roads and set up random checkpoints, searching residents and vehicles around a central mosque as large numbers of people gathered for Friday prayers.

Government minders escorted journalists around the city, where they were shown a man, who gave his name as Khaled al-Juhni, standing outside a government building, shouting calls for more freedoms.

Police and journalists watched as the man criticized the regime as a "police state" and "a big prison" before he got in his car and left.

A government official said security measures around state-run oil giant Saudi Aramco and its oil facilities in the east were beefed up protectively in case of any violence. The company is based in the Dhahran district on the kingdom's eastern coast.

Investors are sensitive to any sign of upheaval in Saudi Arabia because the OPEC leader has been using its spare capacity to make up for output lost amid the violent uprising against Libya's government. When news broke that Saudi Arabian police fired shots to break up the protest Thursday, prices soared $3 in just 12 minutes.

Shiites make up 10 percent of the kingdom's 23 million citizens and have long complained of discrimination, saying they are barred from key positions in the military and government and are not given an equal share of the country's wealth.

Last month, the ultraconservative Saudi government announced an unprecedented economic package worth an estimated $36 billion that will give Saudis interest-free home loans, unemployment assistance and debt forgiveness.

At the same time, it reiterated that demonstrations are forbidden in the kingdom.

So far, any demonstrations have been small, concentrated in the east among Shiites demanding the release of detainees. But activists set up Facebook groups calling for protests in Riyadh and one group garnered more than 30,000 supporters of its demands for free elections.

The Middle East feminist revolution

Women are not merely joining protests to topple dictators, they are at the centre of demanding social change.Naomi Wolf

Among the most prevalent Western stereotypes about Muslim countries are those concerning Muslim women: doe-eyed, veiled, and submissive, exotically silent, gauzy inhabitants of imagined harems, closeted behind rigid gender roles. So where were these women in Tunisia and Egypt?
In both countries, women protesters were nothing like the Western stereotype: they were front and centre, in news clips and on Facebook forums, and even in the leadership. In Egypt's Tahrir Square, women volunteers, some accompanied by children, worked steadily to support the protests – helping with security, communications, and shelter. Many commentators credited the great numbers of women and children with the remarkable overall peacefulness of the protesters in the face of grave provocations.

Other citizen reporters in Tahrir Square – and virtually anyone with a cell phone could become one – noted that the masses of women involved in the protests were demographically inclusive. Many wore headscarves and other signs of religious conservatism, while others reveled in the freedom to kiss a friend or smoke a cigarette in public.

Supporters, leaders

But women were not serving only as support workers, the habitual role to which they are relegated in protest movements, from those of the 1960s to the recent student riots in the United Kingdom. Egyptian women also organised, strategised, and reported the events. Bloggers such as Leil Zahra Mortada took grave risks to keep the world informed daily of the scene in Tahrir Square and elsewhere.

The role of women in the great upheaval in the Middle East has been woefully under-analysed. Women in Egypt did not just "join" the protests – they were a leading force behind the cultural evolution that made the protests inevitable. And what is true for Egypt is true, to a greater and lesser extent, throughout the Arab world. When women change, everything changes - and women in the Muslim world are changing radically.

The greatest shift is educational. Two generations ago, only a small minority of the daughters of the elite received a university education. Today, women account for more than half of the students at Egyptian universities. They are being trained to use power in ways that their grandmothers could scarcely have imagined: publishing newspapers - as Sanaa el Seif did, in defiance of a government order to cease operating; campaigning for student leadership posts; fundraising for student organisations; and running meetings.

Indeed, a substantial minority of young women in Egypt and other Arab countries have now spent their formative years thinking critically in mixed-gender environments, and even publicly challenging male professors in the classroom. It is far easier to tyrannise a population when half are poorly educated and trained to be submissive. But, as Westerners should know from their own historical experience, once you educate women, democratic agitation is likely to accompany the massive cultural shift that follows.

The nature of social media, too, has helped turn women into protest leaders. Having taught leadership skills to women for more than a decade, I know how difficult it is to get them to stand up and speak out in a hierarchical organisational structure. Likewise, women tend to avoid the figurehead status that traditional protest has in the past imposed on certain activists – almost invariably a hotheaded young man with a megaphone.

Projection of power

In such contexts – with a stage, a spotlight, and a spokesperson – women often shy away from leadership roles. But social media, through the very nature of the technology, have changed what leadership looks and feels like today. Facebook mimics the way many women choose to experience social reality, with connections between people just as important as individual dominance or control, if not more so.

You can be a powerful leader on Facebook just by creating a really big "us". Or you can stay the same size, conceptually, as everyone else on your page – you don't have to assert your dominance or authority. The structure of Facebook's interface creates what brick-and-mortar institutions - despite 30 years of feminist pressure - have failed to provide: a context in which women's ability to forge a powerful "us" and engage in a leadership of service can advance the cause of freedom and justice worldwide.

Of course, Facebook cannot reduce the risks of protest. But, however violent the immediate future in the Middle East may be, the historical record of what happens when educated women participate in freedom movements suggests that those in the region who would like to maintain iron-fisted rule are finished.

Just when France began its rebellion in 1789, Mary Wollstonecraft, who had been caught up in witnessing it, wrote her manifesto for women's liberation. After educated women in America helped fight for the abolition of slavery, they put female suffrage on the agenda. After they were told in the 1960s that "the position of women in the movement is prone", they generated "second wave" feminism – a movement born of women's new skills and old frustrations.

Time and again, once women have fought the other battles for the freedom of their day, they have moved on to advocate for their own rights. And, since feminism is simply a logical extension of democracy, the Middle East's despots are facing a situation in which it will be almost impossible to force these awakened women to stop their fight for freedom – their own and that of their communities.

Naomi Wolf is a political activist and social critic whose most recent book is Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries.


Amnesty International has called on the Saudi Arabian authorities to reverse the ban on peaceful protest in the Kingdom, amid fears of a violent crackdown on mass demonstrations planned for Friday's “Day of Rage”.
Prince Saud Al-Faisal, the country’s foreign minister, said on Wednesday that “reform cannot be achieved through protests”, while the protest ban, confirmed on Saturday, was backed by religious and security bodies.
"Instead of banning peaceful protests the Saudi Arabian authorities should address the need for major human rights reform in the country," said Philip Luther, Deputy Director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Programme.
“They must heed the growing calls for change within Saudi Arabia”.
Saudi Arabia's "Day of Rage" was organized online using Facebook. One page has over 33,000 followers.
Media reports over the weekend suggested that some 10,000 Saudi troops would be deployed to crack down on any protests.
The ban was also backed by the president of the Mutawa'een (religious police), the Council of Senior Ulema (religious clerics) and the Shura Council (a consultative body appointed by the King).
“Reports that the Saudi authorities plan to deploy troops to police upcoming demonstrations are very worrying,” said Philip Luther. “Rather than seeking to intimidate would-be demonstrators from coming out on the streets, the authorities should rein in the security forces and allow peaceful protests to take place.”
Amnesty International has also called on the authorities to release or charge a man detained on Friday 4 March during a protest in the capital Riyadh.
Muhammad al-Wad'ani has been detained incommunicado since his arrest and is believed to be at risk of torture.
A video posted on YouTube two days before the demonstration showed Muhammad al-Wad'ani calling for the fall of the monarchy and for people to join the protest.
Around 24 people were detained on 3 and 4 March following protests in the city of al-Qatif, denouncing the prolonged detention without trial of Shi'a prisoners. They were released on 8 March without charge reportedly only after they signed a pledge not to protest again.
The Ministry of Interior was reported to have said in 2008 that protests in Saudi Arabia were banned, after a demonstration against Israel's military action in Gaza.
Although Amnesty International is not aware of any legal text banning demonstrations, in practice the Saudi Arabian authorities have not allowed them to take place.
Torture and other ill-treatment is frequently used to extract confessions from detainees, to punish them for refusing to “repent” or to force them not to criticize the government.
Incommunicado detention in Saudi Arabia often lasts until a confession is obtained, which can take months and occasionally years.

Saudi Arabia,“I need freedom, I need democracy … the whole country is a prison,”

Appeals issued mainly on Facebook for Saudis to stage a so-called “Day of Rage” went unheeded Friday as a heavy police presence blanketed this capital city to prevent any large-scale demonstration.

Traffic police manned checkpoints at many key intersections and scores of police were stationed outside Al Rajhi Mosque, and two courthouses — sites where demonstrators had been asked to stage protests. A helicopter also patrolled the skies over these key points.

There were no reports of protests elsewhere in the country except in Awwamiya and Uum al Hamam, two small towns outside the Shiite majority city of Qatif in the oil rich-Eastern province, according to a Shiite community leader. There also was a demonstration in the eastern town of Hofuf, according to Dow Jones.

“The Saudi people have answered [and shown] their relationship to the [protest] calls going on in cyberspace,” said Gen. Mansour al Turki, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior. “Friday is always a quiet day in our life. People go to pray and then go home. That’s exactly what people did today.”

The Facebook appeal for protests on March 11 were apparently inspired by recent events in Egypt and Tunisia, where massive and sustained demonstrations by thousands of citizens ultimately brought down two Arab leaders.

These revolutions, along with a wave of protests in other Arab countries like Yemen and the ongoing uprising in Libya, appeared to generate greater interest in the Facebook calls for Saudi protests than they would have drawn at other times.

A London-based Saudi dissident, Sa’d al Faqih, had also called for protests on his personal television channel, Saudis said.

There is genuine discontent among many Saudis over corruption and the lack of political freedoms, such as the right to form parties and trade unions, and the lack of elected bodies. This discontent was clear in several petitions demanding political reforms that were sent to the king by various groups in the last few weeks, including liberals, moderate Islamists and young people.

But even among pro-reform Saudis there was little enthusiasm for the Facebook protest calls because they were made by unknown people who did not have a clear agenda and who may not even be living in the kingdom.

Also, protests are illegal in Saudi Arabia. The Ministry of Interior reminded Saudis of that in a firmly worded statement last week, and added that those who violated the ban “will be subject to the full force of the relevant regulations.”

Government-employed Islamic clerics have been warning Saudis that open protests are "haram," which means religiously forbidden.

“Islam strictly prohibits protests in the kingdom because the ruler here rules by God's will,” the Saudi Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdel Aziz Ibn Abudllah Alasheikh, said Friday during a sermon in Riyadh's central mosque.

Earlier this week, the Senior Council of Ulema, a clerical body whose members are appointed by the government, said that "the correct way in sharia [Islamic law] of realizing common interest is by advising, which is what the Prophet Muhammad established. Reform and advice should not be via demonstrations and ways that provoke strife and division.”

Another deterrence measure the sending of anonymous text messages to some mobile phones warning that protesters would face lengthy prison terms and loss of their Saudi citizenship. Onlookers at protests, the messages said, would also face detention and fines.

In a different approach to defusing discontent, the government also recently announced a huge economic package valued at around $36 billion that will give Saudis interest-free home loans, unemployment assistance and debt forgiveness.

In the eastern part of the kingdom, where its main oil fields are located, Shiite residents of Qatif and neighboring towns have held small protests regularly over the past three weeks. They are demanding the release of Shiites detained for long periods without charges and protesting discrimination in government jobs that they say makes them second-class citizens.

On Thursday night, a protest in Qatif ended in violence with one policeman injured in the face and two protesters injured, one in the leg and one in the hand, according to Al Turki. The protesters’ injuries came from bullets, he added.

Al Turki said that police monitoring the protest had fired upwards into the air in order to disperse the demonstrators after some of them began beating a policeman who had been spotted “documenting armed fire from the group.” He said that the entire incident is under investigation.

In Riyadh, the Saudi Ministry of Information organized a bus tour for journalists to several sites named by protest organizers as places to demonstrate, including Al Rajhi Mosque and part of Olaya Street, a major downtown boulevard.

At another site, as reporters were photographing police guarding a courthouse building, a man approached reporters and began denouncing the ruling royal family. He said he had intended to be part of a demonstration but that the large police presence had prevented people from arriving.

“I need freedom, I need democracy … the whole country is a prison,” said the man, who identified himself as a 40-year-old Arabic teacher named Khalid Muhammad Al Jahani. “I will be put in jail but I don’t care ... This is a police country.”

Afghans rely heavily on foreign advisers as transition looms

Nearly 300 foreign advisers, most of them Americans, work at Afghanistan's Interior Ministry, and hundreds more work in other government departments, a reliance on foreign expertise that raises doubts about the viability of the West's exit strategy.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai will announce later this month his plans for "transition" from heavy international involvement in Afghanistan's governance and security to local control. But the number of civilian advisers in the ministries suggests that either Afghans lack the ability to govern themselves or that the international community is trying to run the administration itself, more than nine years after the U.S.-led invasion of the country.

There's no clear plan to reduce that number.

Foreign advisers in the Interior Ministry, for example, appear to outnumber the senior Afghan officials they serve.

The Afghan government's capacity to execute plans is so lacking it will spend only half of its $1.5 billion budget for economic development projects this fiscal year, according to the Ministry of Finance — despite the desperate need for investment in education, health and other basic services.

Karzai's announcement for how the country will move to Afghan management between now and 2014 will include the names of the provinces and districts that will be the first to come under Afghan security control. The list is likely to include the provinces of Bamiyan, Panjshir, Kabul, Herat and the district capital of Helmand province, Lashkargar, all relatively safe places.

The exit strategy for the U.S.-led international coalition requires the gradual handing over of responsibility for security to Afghans, so that the bulk of the 150,000 foreign soldiers — 100,000 of whom are Americans — deployed in the country can be pulled out. International partners are currently spending about $12 billion a month in Afghanistan, about two thirds from the U.S.

While many Afghan officials believe that the work of foreign advisers is crucial to rebuilding the capacity of a government machinery that's been battered by 30 years of constant war, some believe that the quality of the international experts is mixed and they at times push priorities and programs at odds with the ministers they are supposed to serve.

"The requirement is for technical assistance, something that's need-driven, not donor-driven," said Najib Manalai, an Afghan who's the media adviser to the minister of finance, where 70 foreign advisers serve. "The need for foreign advisers is decreasing every day, but the numbers are increasing every day."

The Interior Ministry in Kabul has 282 foreign advisers working there, according to the NATO Training Mission Afghanistan, which placed them in the ministry. Of the 282 advisers, 120 are contractors, costing $36 million a year, paid for by the U.S. government. The rest are made up of 119 U.S. military and U.S. government civilians, and 43 from other coalition countries.

Most of the contractors are from two controversial American firms: Dyncorp and Military Professional Resources Inc.

The Interior Minister, Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, has six personal foreign advisers, two from the military and four civilians. Foreign advisers outnumber senior Afghan officials in the ministry, according to a presentation document prepared by the NATO mission. In some departments, the ratio is stark. The document, dated last month, shows at least 45 foreign advisers in the Interior Ministry's Logistics department, mentoring 14 Afghan officials.

"We're absolutely not run by foreigners. They don't tell us what to do," said Zemeri Bashary, the spokesman for the Interior Ministry, who himself has two foreign advisers. "We do need support. But that doesn't mean they are running the ministry."

Several Interior Ministry officials, serving and retired, were complimentary about the work of the foreign advisers. One mid-ranking security official, who didn't want to be named because he wasn't authorized to speak to reporters, said that corruption would be "many times" greater if the foreigners weren't present.

Some Western experts who deal with the Interior Ministry said that Afghan officials there were weary of the rapid turnover of the international staff, who might serve for only six months or a year, and being told what to do by outside "experts" with a dim knowledge of Afghan conditions.

Another former senior Interior Ministry official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that Afghans wanted to develop the police as a law enforcement force, but that American advisers, holding the upper hand because they also held the purse strings, pushed through training the police as a counterterrorism force instead.

"Most of these guys (foreign advisers) are doing a wonderful job," the former official added. "But the contractors are ill-disciplined and poorly supervised."

The Interior Ministry is probably the most extreme case of foreign involvement, given its responsibility for the police and other vital internal security functions. The Defense Ministry has 58 international advisers, according to the NATO mission. The Ministry of Public Works and the Ministry of Agriculture are likely to be among those with a heavy foreign presence. Ministries with foreign contractors also often need to have private security companies providing guards, to fulfill insurance requirements of the contracting firm.

"Many advisers work on the kind of things donors need, like strategies and reports. There's very little real thinking about what a self-sufficient Afghan government would look like," said Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent research organization. "The foreign advisers are often there to solve little problems, but it's not a coherent program to get Afghanistan ready for transition."

Lt. Col. David C. Simons, a spokesman for the NATO mission, said the foreigners working in Afghan ministries are providing similar services as foreign military trainers provide the Afghan army. "The number of foreign advisers is crucial to ensuring Afghan-led ministerial processes by 2014," he said.

It's not just people that other nations provide Afghanistan. The World Bank estimates that the Afghan government won't be financially self-sufficient until 2023, a date other estimates push to 2025. That means that until then, the international community, primarily the U.S., will need to pay an army and police force of at least 300,000, initially costing $6 billion to $8 billion a year.

In the next fiscal year, which starts later this month, donors will provide about $1.3 billion toward the government's budget for "ordinary" expenses — primarily the salaries of government employees, according to the Ministry of Finance.

In addition, the whole $1.5 billion budget for development projects will be provided by foreign donors, which also separately spend about $4 billion a year in Afghanistan aid projects directly.

Canada extends funding for Kandahar learning centre

A popular learning centre in Kandahar City has received new financial backing from the Canadian government, temporarily ending fears that the facility might have to close.

Though less than half of what facility directors requested, the $250,000 grant from the Canadian International Development Agency will allow classes to continue at the Afghan-Canadian Community Center.

An announcement of the funding was made this week at a ceremony to mark International Women's Day. The centre, though catering to both male and female students, is an especially important educational outlet for Kandahari women and girls who often risk their lives to go to school, centre director Ehsanullah Ehsan said.

"We are proud to celebrate . . . the female students of ACCC who are contributing to the development and prosperity of Afghanistan and Kandahar," Ehsan told a crowd of 240 women collecting graduation certificates for completing English language, computer and management courses. "Let me congratulate you for the achievement you have made and for the bravery you have shown against challenges. You have power and authority in life that can only be achieved by education."

Since opening in 2007, more than 1,500 students have received instruction at the 23-room facility or through the centre's online courses.

CIDA has given the centre about $350,000 over the past three years, but that money was set to run out at the end of March until the latest $250,000 grant was announced. It's unknown how long that will keep the facility afloat, or whether the agency will provide further money once Canadian troops and civilians leave the Kandahar area later this year.

The centre had asked CIDA to provide $650,000 for three years of operations, capital investments and curriculum development.

"Throughout the remainder of our funding relationship, we will continue to work closely with the ACCC to determine the most suitable arrangement to ensure its continued operation," CIDA spokesman Alex Asselin told Postmedia News last month.

Besides CIDA funding, the centre is also dependent on donations and modest student fees charged to the male students.

About 700 of the facility's students, including 300 women, have moved on to full-time jobs with aid agencies, United Nations programs and the Afghan government, Ehsan said.

But despite those successes, serious challenges remain for women in Afghanistan, he told graduates at the ceremony.

"Illiteracy, poverty, violence, disease and discrimination, forced marriages, underage marriages, selling girls for property and forcibly giving a girl to a man to settle tribal feuds are still common practice and go unchecked in our community," he said. "Women are deprived of basic rights to education, decision-making and freedom of expression."

Malalai, a female student at the centre, said education is necessary for women, not only to earn a living, but to teach them they have choices.

"We have such painful cases for women here in Kandahar, women cutting off their fingers, or burning their bodies or committing suicide by drinking poison — all due to lack of education. Once they get education they won't kill themselves," she said.

Another student, Rahila Jan, said that despite ongoing security problems, women's lives in Afghanistan have improved since the Taliban government was ousted.

"My parents now understand education is essential for girls, they are supporting me, which is a good sign for me. I am so thankful to Canadians for supporting us."

This week's ceremony at the centre coincided with the release of a new UN report on Afghan civilian casualties in 2010, which found a six-per-cent increase in the number of women killed and injured.

Overall, 2,777 civilian deaths were recorded in 2010, the highest total to date in the decade-long Afghan war and an increase of 15 per cent compared with 2009. Three-quarters of those deaths were attributed to insurgent attacks, mainly suicide bombs and IED blasts. However, in a disturbing trend, targeted assassinations of civilians more than doubled last year, with half of the 462 deaths occurring in the south, including Kandahar province where Canadian troops are concentrated.

Deaths due to Afghan or NATO forces declined significantly in 2010 but still accounted for 16 per cent of the total. Nine per cent could not be attributed to any party in the conflict.

On the positive side, the report praised coalition forces in Kandahar for avoiding large-scale civilian casualties during clearing operations last year. An earlier clearance campaign in neighbouring Helmand province resulted in much more violence but also provided lessons for coalition militaries, the report speculated.

"Pro-government forces engaged in more extensive consultations with communities prior to operations and carried out a series of smaller operations around Kandahar City; and more attacks in the Kandahar operations appear to have been preplanned," it stated. "In addition, raids and attacks targeted Taliban fighters more precisely, resulting in few civilian casualties."

However, the report's authors noted that the same care was not applied to property protection, which worked against efforts to improve relations with the local population.

"The Kandahar operations resulted in the large-scale destruction of homes, crops, and irrigation systems. Many houses were destroyed to dispose of IEDs and to improve the defences of pro-government forces' bases," the report said.

"Military vehicles drove off roads to avoid IEDs but destroyed walls, gardens, and irrigation systems in the process and pro-government forces destroyed buildings used for drying grapes to prevent their use as fortifications."

Japan earthquake, tsunami death toll rises to 1000, reports say

Japanese media are reporting at least 1000 people are presumed dead from the massive 8.9 earthquake, most of them drowned by the wall of water that swept across the northeast coast of the island nation.

Protests hit eastern Saudi Arabia, calm in capital

Several hundred people protested in heavily Shiite eastern Saudi Arabia Friday but hundreds of police prevented protests in the capital calling for democratic reforms inspired by the wave of unrest sweeping the Arab world.
Police blocked roads and set up random checkpoints in Riyadh, searching residents and vehicles around a central mosque as large numbers of people gathered for Friday prayers. Witnesses said groups of policemen manned street corners and intersections and a helicopter flew over the city.
By midday, no protesters had showed up in the capital and the police presence significantly decreased.
In the eastern city of Qatif and nearby areas where the country's minority Shiites live, several hundred people staged protests, shouting slogans calling for reforms and equality between Shiites and Sunnis. In Qatif, the protesters were surrounded by armored personnel carriers and dozens of riot police in full gear.
On Thursday, violence broke out at another protest in Qatif, when Saudi police opened fire to disperse demonstrators. At least three protesters and one police officer were wounded. Friday's protest was largely peaceful.
Although protests have so far been confined to small rallies in the east, activists have been emboldened by other uprisings in the region that have toppled longtime rulers of Tunisia and Egypt. The Saudi activists have set up online groups calling for protests in Riyadh on Friday.
Any violence at Friday's planned protests could reverberate through the world's markets because of the importance of Saudi oil exports.
Security officials on Friday said security measures around state-run oil giant Saudi Aramco and its oil facilities in the east were beefed up protectively, in case of any violence. The company is based in Dhahran district on the kingdom's eastern coast.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said the new measures were "considered normal under the current circumstances," referring to the online call for protests in the area.
Investors are sensitive to any sign of upheaval in Saudi Arabia because the OPEC leader has been using its spare capacity to make up for output lost amid the violent uprising against Libya's government. When news broke that Saudi Arabian police fired shots to break up the protest Thursday, prices soared $3 in just 12 minutes.
Discord is common between Saudi authorities and the country's Shiites, who make up 10 percent of the kingdom's 23 million citizens. The Shiites have long complained of discrimination, saying they are barred from key positions in the military and government and are not given an equal share of the country's wealth.
The pro-Western monarchy is concerned protests could open footholds for Shiite powerhouse Iran and has accused foreigners of stoking the protests, which are officially forbidden.
In Riyadh, the Interior Ministry organized a tour for a few journalists who were escorted by police around the city Friday. At one point in front of a government building, the journalists encountered a man, Khaled al-Juhni, standing outside a government building, shouting calls for more freedoms.
Police and journalists watched as the man criticized the regime as a "police state" and "a big prison" before he got in his car and left.
Despite the ban on demonstrations and a warning that security forces will act against them, protesters demanding the release of political prisoners took to the streets Thursday for a second day in the eastern city of Qatif. Several hundred protesters, some wearing masks to avoid being identified, marched after dark asking for "Freedom for prisoners."
Police, who were lined up opposite the protesters, fired percussion bombs followed by gunfire, causing the crowd to scatter, a witness said. Other witnesses said the protesters threw Molotov cocktails and stones from rooftops on the security troops.
Mainly Sunni Saudi Arabia has struggled to stay ahead of the unrest that has led to the ouster of the Egyptian and Tunisian leaders in recent weeks.
Last month, the ultraconservative Saudi government announced an unprecedented economic package worth an estimated $36 billion that will give Saudis interest-free home loans, unemployment assistance and debt forgiveness.
At the same time, it reiterated that demonstrations are forbidden in the kingdom because they contradict Islamic laws and society's values and said security forces were authorized to act against anyone violating the ban.
So far the demonstrations have been small, concentrated in the east among Shiites demanding the release of detainees. But activists have been emboldened by other uprisings have set up Facebook groups calling for protests in the capital, Riyadh, on Friday to demand democratic reforms.
One such group garnered more than 30,000 supporters. The group called the "Honein Revolution March 11" has listed a number of mosques in 17 Saudi cities for protesters to rally.
The group says it strives to have elected officials in Saudi Arabia, including the ruler

Pakistan Says Drone Strikes Have Been Effective

A top Pakistani military commander acknowledged this week that the U.S drone strikes against militant hideouts have been an effective weapon in the anti-militancy fight.
Analysts say the rare public admission by the powerful military will help remove misperceptions about the American drone program that has targeted al-Qaida and Taliban-linked fighters in the country's tribal region on the Afghan border.

Pakistan's lawless North Waziristan region has been the focus of most of the missile strikes that the unmanned U.S spy plans - or drones - have carried out against al-Qaida and Taliban-linked militants.

U.S army officials believe the mountainous Pakistani border district has become the "epicenter" of international terrorism and is being used for attacks on coalition forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

In recent years, U.S. drones have stepped up missile strikes on militant positions in the North Waziristan region. But alleged civilian deaths in these raids are being cited as a major source of growing anti-American sentiment in Pakistan, a vital U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism.

Publicly, the powerful Pakistani military and the political leadership have been condemning drone attacks as a violation of the country's sovereignty. But it is widely believed that local authorities help with intelligence information for the CIA-run drone program.

But the Pakistani general leading troops in the North Waziristan has for the first time publicly acknowledged the U.S drone attacks are hitting mostly militants and al-Qaida fighters.

Major-General Ghayur Mehmood spoke to a group of Pakistani reporters on a rare trip to Miran Shah, the administrative center of North Waziristan.

The Pakistani general says that information the military has gathered from its sources suggest most of those killed in drone attacks are hardcore militants, and the number of innocent people being killed is relatively low.

The official paper distributed among reporters says that there have been 164 drone strikes in the militant-dominated region of North Waziristan since 2007, killing 964 "terrorists". There were 171 al-Qaida fighters among those killed, mostly belonging to central Asian and Arab countries.

Analysts like former army general Talat Masood suggest that the rare admission by the Pakistani military about the effectiveness of drone attacks could be exploited to make the general public understand the dilemma their country is facing.

"Because on one hand the drone attacks are a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty and it is also a violation of international law. But at the same time, they have a certain tactical utility in the sense that Pakistan has lost control over these areas and if the American drones help in containing these forces and also killing some of the militants, specially their top leadership, then it will facilitate Pakistan's fighting against the militant forces," Masood states.

Ayesha Siddiqua is a social scientist with deep insight into Pakistani military affairs. In a country where the army is seen as the main power broker, she says the acknowledgement about drones being a useful tactic against militants is likely to help political leaders to seek legitimacy for the strikes in public discourse.

"It basically means that the political dispensation is under greater pressure, is much more answerable to the people and, therefore, they have to at least cook some stories. But in reality, the military which is not answerable to any public, it is also a party to the decision of conducting drone attacks," Siddiqua said. "So I think the most significant thing is that the Pakistani army is not shedding its responsibility of being a party to the decision to the drone attack [and that] intelligence is provided by our own sources."

The United States does not acknowledge the drone campaign but American officials describe the missile strikes as an important weapon against militants. Observers say the Pakistani military's nod to the effectiveness of the U.S campaign could serve the interest of both countries in sending a message to critics of the drone program that they are avoiding civilian deaths and that the strikes are militarily effective.

Saudi Arabia 'Day of Rage'

Washington Post
The "Day of Rage" planned by critics of the Saudi Arabian government may have turned into a day of rest on Friday, with quiet streets in the eastern city of Qatif one day after police fired on protesters there, and peaceful demonstrations outside the town.

Witnesses reported a heavy police presence in Riyadh, the country's capital, but no protests.

One witness said hundreds marched in Al-Ahsa, in the southern part of the country's largely Shiite Eastern Province, and several protesters were arrested, but that there was no violence. Another witness said that marches took place in two towns outside Qatif in the late afternoon without incident.

Protesters have called for increased democracy in the country that has been ruled by the al-Saud family since they united it by conquest almost 80 years ago. The royal family and the majority of the country's population are Sunni Muslims, and Shiite Muslims in the Eastern Province have called for an end to what they say is government discrimination against them that prevents them from holding many public positions and restricts their public services.

Fridays have been the biggest days for confrontation and demonstrations since protests started sweeping North Africa and the Mideast two months ago; the Saudi government had indicated this week that it would do whatever it took to prevent demonstrations from taking place this Friday.

It was still possible that more protests could take place after evening prayers.

In Qatif, police shot and wounded at least two protesters Thursday night, and a police officer was also injured, according to the Interior Ministry. On Friday, a black bus filled with members of what appeared to be the Saudi Arabian National Guard sat parked near the town's main square about noon.Heavily armed National Guard members stood casually around the bus, but no protesters were in sight. A few hours later, two black military buses drove toward the city's police station, as the afternoon had passed uneventfully.

In Riyadh, witnesses said that police helicopters were hovering all over the city, and that police had crowded streets that led into areas where protesters had said they would hold a demonstration.

"The entire area, the designated area for protests, was completely barricaded by police cruisers. You see police checkpoints at every place to get in," said Mohammed al-Qahtani, the founder of the Association of Civil and Political Rights in Saudi Arabia, who was in Riyadh on Friday.

"You see back alleys packed with anti-riot police apparently waiting if anything should happen. ... It intimidates people," he said. No protests had been reported as of Friday afternoon.

In Al-Ahsa, several hundred people protested after a top Shiite cleric gave a Friday sermon, said a witness, who asked to remain anonymous because he feared reprisals from the government. The cleric, Sheikh Tawfiq al-Amer, was released from prison this week after being jailed for several days for calling for a constitutional monarchy in a sermon at the end of February.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that he had said upon his release that he was cautious about protesting right now because the government appears willing to make some reforms.

Arab world witnesses more protests

Security services are on high alert across several countries in the Arab world as authorities seek to contain anti-government protests planned for the day.

Police have flooded the streets of Riyadh, the Saudi capital, looking to deter fresh demonstrations. A Facebook page calling for a 'Day of Rage' on Friday has attracted more than 30,000 supporters in the kingdom.

Protests are strictly forbidden in Saudi Arabia, and scores of uniformed police patrolled the main squares in Riyadh, with helicopters buzzing overhead, significantly raising the security presence there.

Two activists said more than 200 protesters had rallied in the city of Hofuf, which is close to the eastern Ghawar oil field and major refinery installations.

The city has seen scattered protests in the last two weeks by minority Shias, who complain of discrimination in the face of the country's dominant Sunni majority.

Saudi Arabia is the world's top oil exporter, a major US ally which has guaranteed Western energy supplies for decades, and the calls for protests have put markets on edge.

"The fact the Saudi regime is making a big deal of this suggests that it may be a big deal ... If the first kind of explicitly pro-democracy protests happen [on Friday] that sets a precedent and we'll probably see more pro-democracy protests," said Shadi Hamid, an analyst with the Brookings Centre in Doha.

"Even if it's 200 or 300 that is still, by Saudi standards, a big deal and something to worry about."

At least three people were injured on Thursday after police fired in the air to disperse several hundred protesters in the eastern oil-rich city of Qatif.

"As the procession in the heart of the city was about to finish, soldiers started shooting at the protesters, and three of them were wounded," said a witness, requesting anonymity.

A spokesman for the country's interior ministry spokesman said police had fired live rounds in the air after shots were fired from among the protesters.

Kuwait demonstration

In Kuwait, elite anti-riot police used tear gas to disperse hundreds of stateless Arab protesters who were
demanding citizenship and other rights.

About 500 demonstrators took to the streets in Jahra, west of Kuwait City, the capital, following Friday prayers, despite a stern warning against protests from the new interior minister.

"Stateless since 50 years, we demand citizenship," read a huge banner in English as protesters chanted "we will not leave without a solution".

There were other protests in Sulaibiya, southwest of Kuwait City, and in the oil-rich city of Al-Ahmadi, south of the capital.

Stateless Arabs, known locally as bidoons and estimated at more than 100,000, protested last month for three consecutive days until officials gave them assurances that their grievances would be addressed.

But parliament on Tuesday refused to debate a draft bill that would give them civil rights.

Bahrain march

Thousands of opposition activists heading towards Bahrain's royal court have been prevented from marching on the king's palace.

Carrying Bahraini flags and flowers, the mainly Shia protesters began walking from the Aly area to Riffa, a district of Manama, the capital, where Sunnis and members of the royal family live.

Near a clocktower in Riffa, about 1,000 residents armed with clubs gathered to block the protesters' advance.

More than 200 riot police armed with batons blocked off the road with barbed wire, persuading most protesters to go home.

Police pushed back a group of rock-throwing Sunnis who approached police lines and fired tear gas to disperse Shias
trying to get around the roadblock.

Medical sources said one person was seriously injured.

"The royal family has lots of palaces and houses here. We're peaceful. We want to go to their house and ask for our rights," said Ahmed Jaafar, as he set off from Aly. "Power should not be with one family, it should be with the people."

Bahrain, home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, has been gripped by the worst unrest since the 1990s when protesters took to the streets last month, inspired by uprisings that unseated entrenched autocratic rulers in Egypt and Tunisia.

Seven people have been killed in clashes with security forces and thousands of the February 14 youth movement still occupy Pearl roundabout, a busy intersection in the capital.

Sectarian violence has begun to increase in the Gulf island where the majority of people are Shia Muslim but the ruling family is Sunni.

Yemen deaths

Tens of thousands of protesters marched in Yemen on Friday, drawing record crowds in Sanaa, the capital, to show Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president, his reform offers would not soften their demand for his immediate departure.

Yemenis flooded streets and alleys around Sanaa University in the biggest protest to hit the capital since demonstrations began in January.

Thousands of Saleh loyalists also crammed the capital's Tahrir Square, carrying pictures of the veteran leader.

Hashem Ahelbarra, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Sanaa, said there were reports that at least four people had been injured in clashes between the protesters and government loyalists.

Protests turned violent in the southern port city of Aden, where three people were wounded by gunfire and six overcome by tear gas as police tried to disperse thousands of marchers.

Unidentified armed men killed four soldiers on patrol east of Mukalla city in Hadhramaut province, in southeast Yemen.

Security source accused al-Qaeda operatives of being behind the attack.

A wave of unrest has weakened Saleh's 32-year grip on his impoverished nation, with about 30 people killed since January.

Iraq protests

In Iraq, hundreds of protesters are demanding jobs and better basic services, in the latest challenge to the government.

About 500 protesters turned up in Baghdad's Tahrir Square on Friday, with a similar amount in the city of Fallujah west of the capital.

Deomonstrations were also reported in several other cities, including Sulaymaniyah in the north and Basra in the south.

Iraq's government has been shaken by a string of rallies across the country since the beginning of February.

US gives thumbs up to Russian choppers for Afghan army

Moscow will conclude a deal to sell choppers to Afghanistan with the US rather than NATO despite previous plans.

The deal involving 24 helicopters has been already agreed on and could be concluded by April, the Russian daily, Kommersant wrote on Friday. The choppers are intended for the Afghan army.

Earlier Russia had been expected to sign a contract with NATO rather than directly with the US. Previous talks between Moscow and the Western alliance on delivering several dozen Mi-17 helicopters to Afghanistan reportedly failed to produce any results.

Now the fleet of Russian-made helicopters bound for Afghanistan could be expanded from 70 to around 100, a source familiar with the deal told the daily. Moscow is ready to throw in three more choppers free of charge. Russia will also be delivering components for the choppers in the future.

Last year, NATO members agreed to set up a special trust fund to finance the establishment of a helicopter repair base and a training center for Afghan pilots. It will be also responsible for deliveries of fuel, spare parts and weapons.

Earlier this week, Anatoly Isaikin, head of Russia’s arms exporter, Rosoboronexport, confirmed that Moscow was negotiating the supply of choppers to Afghanistan and Iraq with the US Department of Defense. The deal, however, was still in the stage of discussions, he noted.

According to the official, the terms of the contracts still have to be agreed on. But the desire to buy helicopters from Russia is there. Isaikin believes the objective to step up co-operation in this area could be reached in the near future.

Eearthquake jolts northwest Pakistan

A light earthquake of magnitude 4.8 jolted northwest Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan on Friday but there were no immediate reports of casualties, an official said.

The quake struck at 4:32 pm (1132 GMT) with its epicentre in the Hindu Kush mountain range, chief meteorologist Mohammad Riaz told AFP.

Tremors were felt in several cities in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and its capital, Peshawar, he said.

The small quake hit a few hours after a devastating 8.9-magnitude earthquake hit Japan on Friday and triggered tsunami alerts across the Pacific ocean.

Pakistan was hit by a 7.6-magnitude earthquake on October 8, 2005 that killed more than 73,000 people and left about 3.5 million homeless, mainly in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Bahrain troops, protesters in standoff near palace

Security forces and pro-government vigilantes carrying clubs and swords faced off against protesters near Bahrain's royal complex Friday in a showdown that displayed that deepening conflict between Sunni Muslims backing the ruling system and Shiites demanding it give up its hold on power.

Hundreds of pro-reform marchers — some wearing white headbands as a symbol of their willingness to die — stood just 500 yards (meters) from the wall of riot police with armor vehicles and a hundreds-strong Sunni mob armed with street fight-style weapons.

Any incident could further enflame tensions between Bahrain's Sunnis and majority Shiites, who have increasingly called for toppling the Western-allied monarchy in the small but strategic island nation that hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
Even some main opposition parties had urged to cancel the march, fearing Bahrain was moving dangerously close to a full-scale sectarian conflict after nearly a month of political unrest. On Thursday, students clashed at a school and Sunni groups burned a Shiite-owned supermarket and threatened other businesses.
But mostly Shiite youth groups ignored the appeals to call of the protest near the offices and compounds of Bahrain's king and other members of the ruling dynasty that has held power for more than two centuries.
A statement by Bahrain's interior ministry warned against the march amid a "level of sectarian tension that threatens Bahrain's social fabric."
Major Sunni-Shiite clashes occurred during the 1990s and forced Bahrain's Sunni rulers to introduce political reforms that included an elected parliament. But the island's Shiites — about 70 percent of the population — still see themselves stuck in a permanent underclass status.
They are effectively blackballed from top government or security posts and complain that voting districts are gerrymandered to prevent a Shiite majority in the 40-seat parliament, where the main Shiite bloc took 18 seats in elections last year.
A main grievance is the Sunni naturalization policies, which seek to offset the lopsided Shiite demographic advantage and bulk up the ranks of loyalists. Opposition groups estimate tens of thousands of Sunnis from across the Arab world and South Asia have been brought to Bahrain in recent years.
On Wednesday, thousands of Shiites marched outside the immigration office in the capital Manama to decry the "political naturalizations" and demand a mass expulsion.
Bahrain's leaders, meanwhile, are under strong regional pressure to stand firm.
The other Sunni Arab dynasties in Gulf — particularly Saudi Arabia — fear any crack in Bahrain could encourage more uprisings across the oil-rich region to demand an end to their authoritarian grip. Protests have flared already in Oman and Kuwait. Saudi security forces were out Friday in a major show of power amid rumblings of wider demonstrations.
The Gulf Sunni leaders also see Bahrain as a potential beachhead for Shiite powerhouse Iran. Although there is no evidence of political ties between Tehran and Bahrain's main Shiite groups, some hard-liners in Iran have called Bahrain the "14th province" of the Islamic Republic.
On Thursday, the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council backed a $10 billion aid plan for Bahrain and Oman, the relatively poorest nations among the super-wealth bloc.
In Geneva, U.N. human rights officials said three prominent human rights activists in Bahrain are being targeted by death threats conveyed through Facebook and other social media sites. Rupert Colville of the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said the messages on Facebook and other social media Web sites denounce the three men as "traitors" and aim to incite people to kill them.

Hundreds Protest in Eastern Saudi Arabia

Hundreds of protesters took to the streets in the eastern Saudi Arabian city of al-Ahsa Friday.

About 500 protesters, mainly Shiite Muslims who make up a large part of the population of the region, demonstrated in the oil-rich eastern province. They called for the release of prisoners held without charges, according to Ibrahim al-Mugaiteeb, president of Human Rights First Society.

There was no gunfire or clashes with police in the area, Mr. al-Mugaiteeb said.

In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia's capital, Friday prayers ended calmly, as none of the protests activists had called for materialized by mid-afternoon local-time.

Dozens of police cars waited quietly in the area where activists had called for the demonstrations after Muslim prayers. No protesters could be seen in the area.

Activists had used Facebook pages to call for demonstrations to demand political reforms. The calls for protests came as demonstrations have broken out across the Arab world, toppling entrenched regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, and leading to a bloody fight between pro-government and antigovernment forces in Libya.

Saudi Arabia's government has taken a harsh line on protests. Protests have been banned, and last week a small demonstration in the east of the country police arrested the demonstrations' organizers.

On Thursday, Saudi police fired rubber bullets to disperse about 200 Shiite protesters in Qatif, a town in the oil-rich Eastern Province, local human rights activists said

Will March 11th Bring “Day Of Rage” In Saudi Arabia?

Blast in Peshawar mosque, no casualties

A week after the devastating blast at the funeral procession in the Badabher area on Friday last, the militants have struck again as blast have been reported in Shahabkhel mosque in the area.
According to police, unidentified militants planted bomb in the local mosque to apparently target the Friday congregation but it went off premature causing no casualties.
However, building of the mosque was damaged in the terror incident. The law enforcers have further beefed up the security in the area and banned parking of vehicles outside the mosque.

Saudi Arabia prepares for 'day of rage' protests

Protestors have taken to the streets in the city of Katif for a second night, before a so-called "day of rage" against Saudi Arabia's rulers planned for Friday.

There are reports of the police firing stun grenades and live bullets to disperse the crowd.

One minister there has warned that the government will "cut off any finger" raised against it.

The Saudi authorities place foreign journalists under tight restrictions but the BBC's Paul Wood has sent this special report on whether the unrest in Libya and Egypt is spreading to Saudi Arabia.


A tsunami strikes the coast of Japan following an 8.9-magnitude earthquake which triggers tsunami warnings in other countries, including Russia, the National Weather Service says.

DAY OF RAGE: protests key test for Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia's capital was quiet on Friday ahead of a planned day of demonstrations that will test whether activists calling for reform online will succeed in taking their protests to the streets.

A loose coalition of liberals, rights activists, moderate Sunni Islamists and Shi'ite Muslims has called for political reform and a Facebook page calling for demonstrations attracted more than 30,000 supporters, but protests are strictly forbidden in the conservative kingdom.

The government made those views clear late on Thursday, when police dispersed protests in the eastern province town of Qatif. Shots were heard from where the demonstration of about 200 people in the oil-rich region's Shi'ite minority were gathered.

Police cars toured the streets of Riyadh early on Friday, raising the security presence ahead of the planned protests.

"The fact the Saudi regime is making a big deal of is suggests that it may be a big deal ... If the first kind of explicitly pro-democracy protests happen (on Friday) that sets a precedent and we'll probably see more pro-democracy protests," said Shadi Hamid, of the Brookings Centre in Doha.

"Even if its 200 or 300 that is still, by Saudi standards, a big deal and something to worry about."

A diplomat in the Gulf region said protests were not expected to evolve into a mass demonstration on Friday and the Saudi government would respond through non-lethal means.


On Thursday, foreign ministers from Gulf Arab oil producers unveiled a $20 billion aid package for Bahrain and Oman, both of which are facing anti-government protests, emphasising the nervousness felt by the region's rulers over spreading social unrest.

Protests were also planned in other Gulf countries such as Yemen, Kuwait and Bahrain on Friday, which falls on the weekend.

The time after Friday prayers has proved to be crucial in popular uprisings that have brought down Tunisian and Egyptian rulers who once seemed invulnerable.

The world's biggest oil exporter has made it clear it will not tolerate any protests or political parties, which are seen as unnecessary in an Islamic state applying sharia (Islamic law).

A note by political risk analysts at Eurasia Group said that, unlike unrest that has rocked other autocratic Arab leaders' rule, Saudi protests calling only for reform were currently less of a threat to the kingdom's stability.

"They are appealing to the king, not demanding his departure. Thus, while there may be some unrest tomorrow, it will not threaten al Saud in the short term -- but things could get complicated if Saudi security forces overreact."

Eurasia Group also said Shi'ite protesters were unlikely to try and sabotage energy infrastructure.

Saudi Arabia is home to Islam's holiest sites and a long-time U.S. ally which has ensured oil supplies for the West.

In a sign that Riyadh was keen to address brewing discontent, ruler King Abdullah unveiled benefits for Saudis worth about $36 billion last month when he returned from three months of medical treatment abroad.

Other Gulf rulers have offered political concessions or paid out billions to help ease the pain of rising food prices and unemployment. Until recently, many had expected the region to avoid the massive uprisings seen in North Africa.

United Arab Emirates citizens petition for direct elections and legislative powers

A group of 133 United Arab Emirates nationals have petitioned the president of the country for direct elections.
It includes academics, former government officials, journalists and activists, said Ahmed Mansoor, one of the petitioners.
The petition comes in the midst of a wave of unrest and political change across the region that has brought new leadership to Egypt and Tunisia.
The petition is addressed to President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and the members of the Supreme Council of the seven Emirates that form the U.A.E.In addition to elections, the group is also asking that the Federal National Council be granted legislative powers. The body only works in an advisory capacity and has no regulatory powers.
"The group called for a comprehensive reform of the parliamentary system of the Federal National Council (the Parliament), and included demands for free elections by all citizens," Mansoor said in an email. "It also demanded reform of legislation governing the work of the Parliament to include legislative and monitoring authorities and calling for necessary constitutional amendments to ensure that."
Despite widespread political unrest across the Middle East and North Africa, there have been no protests in the U.A.E. Demonstrations aren't technically illegal, but police never grant permits for them.

'Bhutto' Film Biography At Real Art Ways

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was as revered as she was mistrusted, even within the ranks of her own family. Her complex personal and political story is the subject of "Bhutto."

Duane Baughman and Johnny O'Hara's documentary follows Bhutto from the beginnings of her career to her 2007 assassination.

It will be shown in a limited run this weekend at Real Art Ways. Showtime is 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.After Saturday's showing, there will be a discussion with Pakistani-American artist Nilofer Haider. After Sunday's screening, there will be a discussion with Pakistani-born Hartford physician Faisal Zaeem.

Real Art Ways is at 56 Arbor St. in Hartford. Admission is $9, $5 for members, $6.25 for seniors and students, $4.50 for senior and student members.